Our two-year-old Sarah Grace is having a hard time with transitions lately; bed time, bath time, leaving anything fun to do anything else. It’s pretty standard toddler behavior, but it also sounds a lot like adult behavior to me. And what we’ve learned this past week is that when she is feeling upset and in need of a little comfort, what she needs is some “twinkle lights”—what she calls Christmas lights. So with tears still on her cheeks, we hop in the car and drive around the neighborhood, taking in a view of all the twinkle lights from her passenger window. We’ll drive by a neighbor’s house all lit up and she’ll yell, “wanna do again!” So we put it in reverse, or promise to circle back around and give her that little dose of comfort she needs one more time.
I love Christmas. I’m not a member of what some may call the Advent Task Force, knocking on neighbors’ doors, piously reminding them that Christmas is still weeks away. In fact, if we could have twinkle lights up year-round it would bring me and Sarah Grace a lot of comfort and joy, and little less tears.
I love Christmas. But I also love Advent. I really do. And not as something that is in tension with Christmas or in opposition to it, but as a gift that we’re given in the midst of all the busyness and planning and decorations we string up that are often just well-meaning attempts to cover up the cloudiness of our lives with some twinkle lights.
Advent gives us the gift of sitting and hearing and considering the realities of life. The readings and the hymns that we’re blessed with during Advent, like our reading from Isaiah today, don’t shy away from the truths of life in exile or quarantine, about broken homes and dreams, and the longing for comfort and hope in the midst of it all.
In her fantastic book about Advent, Fleming Rutledge reflects on her childhood experiences of the season which too often felt like a whole month of the church reminding kids it wasn’t time to open their presents yet and that Jesus’ birthday hadn’t happened yet. Instead, she writes, “In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’ final victorious coming.”
Advent allows us to sit, to be still and experience a rare thing, an honest voice about who we are and what life is like. We hear the truth that life is hard. Even in the midst of genuine joy and celebrations, the truth is that life is really, really hard. Advent allows us to sit, to be still and also hear that God is real, really, really real.
Today’s reading from Isaiah 40 is a pretty epic and timely passage about God’s people longing to return from exile. For the past 39 chapters of Isaiah, the author has been laying down the law on the people of Israel. Condemning them of their wrongs and how they haven’t lived up to God’s, as well as their own, expectations. God has put them on trial, they have been found guilty and they have found themselves in exile. Everything leading up to what we hear today has been law, and it’s shed a painful light on the truth of their lives, and placed them in the state of desperately needing some comfort and some Gospel.
Advent is itself a little reminder of this state of being in need. When we give ourselves or life forces us to slow down, to stop escaping from the truth and actually look at the fact that life is hard, we enter into a truer state of being, but it’s a state of being that’s defined by need, specifically the need for comfort.
The opposite of Advent is to escape to the past with nostalgia, to some vision of a better time with less problems and a sweeter simplicity. The only problem with that is of course that such a time never existed. Just take a history class, or better yet look at your Bible and what you’ll see is people perpetually in a state of conflict and perpetually trying to convince themselves that they can succeed, or argue or “win” their way out of it.
This anti-Advent dishonesty about ourselves can also take the form of escaping in our minds into the future by building up some future, better version of ourselves that even we would be lucky to meet. This is essentially an investment in our own ego, an investment that never turns out well.
In his new book “Pappyland”, which is a beautiful new book about Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon and family that every father in the world will likely receive as a Christmas present this year, Wright Thompson reflects on how and why our minds wander into the future. He says, “I’m a middle-aged man with elevated liver enzymes and high cholesterol, so I’ve had to consider dying as a real thing, and I find my immediate reaction is this strange desire to leave behind monuments to myself, whether they come in the form of a book about bourbon or in letters to friends and family. The monuments we erect—shouting into the wind that we were once alive and had hopes and dreams—often end up becoming a shrine to the fallacy and futility of that desire itself.”
Thompson is right; our ego’s projection into the future won’t save us either. But what Advent does, by bringing awareness of our honest need in the present moment, is it primes us for what we truly need. We need comfort that lasts longer than the twinkle lights, comfort that’s not a false narrative of the past or a bad investment in our future selves. We need real comfort.
In Isaiah 40 that’s what the people of God receive. They have been found guilty, placed in quarantine and it feels like they’ve been left to themselves to search anxiously for their own sources of comfort. But these comfort seekers aren’t alone. In verse 9 the people of Israel are told, “Hear is your God!” Which wouldn’t typically be a word of comfort to a group of people recently found guilty by this same God. I would think this would be received like a disobedient child hearing from their frustrated mother saying, “you just wait until your father comes home.” But this is no ordinary father. Isaiah says the God that is truly here with you in the midst of your truly difficult life is “ the Lord God [who] comes with might”. But this is what His might looks like;
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
This is the Lord God who meets us where we are, with comfort and with grace.
Advent is of course about waiting, but it’s not about waiting for Jesus to come. Instead we’re waiting for Jesus to come again, and that’s an important distinction. Yes, we are waiting for Jesus’ final victorious coming again, when every tear will be wiped away and the darkness will be lifted once and for all. But make no mistake, Jesus has already come. He has already walked among us, and died for us. And that means that we aren’t waiting for the grace of God, but instead we’re waiting with the grace of God. The comfort we long for has already arrived.
And this brings me to my last point, what do we mean when we say comfort? We say that Jesus comforts us, but how? We live in a world so desperate for comfort that we try to manifest it many different creative ways. There are the traditional forms of food and alcohol and TV, as well as the less traditional forms of comfort, like professional “cuddlers”, which I will resist the temptation to comment on! But all of these forms of comfort are fleeting, and many of them simply increase our anxieties or create a whole new set of problems to worry about. So how is it that God comforts us?
Well, the answer is simple. It’s an answer that’s at the very heart of the Gospel itself. It’s the one true job of the church to proclaim and remind us of week after week, Advent after Advent. It’s the one thing that we all long for deep down, yesterday, today and tomorrow. It’s that God comforts us with His grace. By looking at us and our world honestly, and without hesitation saying your sins are forgiven. You are mine, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
So, this Advent season, go ahead and hang up your twinkle lights, but while you’re at it take a long deep breath, close your eyes and hear, and deep down just know, that your true comfort is this: that you are forgiven, that you are loved, and that Jesus will take care of you.